Apple courts developers at WWDC

Thousands of developers will attend Apple’s annual conference on Monday in San Francisco’s Moscone Center, where the company is expected to announce tools and incentives for building apps on devices including the iPhone and Apple Watch.

While Apple has held its Worldwide Developers Conference, or WWDC, for more than a quarter century, this year’s weeklong coder confab comes at a critical time. Last quarter, Apple had its first year-over-year decline in revenue in 13 years, hurt by weaker iPhone sales. And the company faces criticism for not unveiling splashy products fast enough. Google’s Android has been gaining market share in smartphones around the world, spurred by cheaper devices and improved tools for the same developers Apple is trying to court.

Though Apple is known for its well-designed hardware, the independent developers who build software that make its products useful are critical to its success. They range from solo programmers to giant media publishers and broadcasters — and they all watch the announcements Apple makes at its Worldwide Developers Conference closely.

At this year’s event, analysts expect developers will soon build functions into Siri, the company’s voice assistant, and have more access to the Apple Watch. Apple Music, the streaming-audio service, may get a redesign. And marketing chief Phil Schiller said in media interviews this week that Apple will soon offer developers a greater share of revenue from subscriptions sold through the App Store.

“This year will be the one to watch at WWDC as the overall market put pressure on Apple to continue to innovate and advance their software and operating system technology to levels above and beyond all competitors,” said Stephanie Atkinson, founder of Compass Intelligence LLC in an email. “This past year, Apple was seen as a competitor that lost momentum.”

The last major product that Apple launched was the Apple Watch last year, but few developers have built apps for it, according to mobile database Realm. The firm said that for every 1,000 new apps created for Apple’s smartphones and tablets, there’s only one Apple Watch app. An Apple spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on the Watch’s reception by developers.

Watch’s limits

Nick Lee, chief technology officer of New York’s Tendigi, a mobile software development company, said he would like to see Apple open up more options for developers on the Watch. Right now, the Watch doesn’t give developers the tools to sense where a user’s finger is on the Watch face. So if you wanted to place a dial on an Apple Watch screen, that’s not possible, Lee said.

“They have really locked the Watch down,” Lee said. “That limits pretty severely what we can do with our clients. A lot of times our clients come to us with Watch projects and a lot of times we have to tell them ‘No, we can’t do that because Apple won’t let us.’”

While Apple popularized the idea of a voice-based digital assistant with Siri, rivals like Amazon and Google have stolen a march on Apple by putting their own voice-powered devices in people’s living rooms. Apple is now expected to offer tools for developers to work with Siri. This would expand the ways Siri is able to help users beyond saying the time or the weather or finding restaurants.

“It could really improve Siri as a platform,” said Neil Cybart of Apple analysis site Above Avalon. “It could make Siri more intelligent.”

If Apple makes Siri more open to developers, that could help it court those who already work on other voice programs such as Soundhound’s Houndify or Amazon’s Alexa. SoundHound CEO Keyvan Mohajer said that when Amazon opened Alexa to developers last year, it only increased the number of developers using Houndify. It’s not a zero-sum game, in other words: Having built one voice version of an app, developers are likely to want to repeat their work on others to reach more consumers.

Apple Pay moves

Apple may also make announcements regarding its mobile-payment service, Apple Pay. It may expand it to iMessage, to match features available in Facebook and Google’s messaging services, or expand payments to the mobile Web, analysts said.

Atkinson said she expects Apple will do a “major overhaul or revamp” of Apple Music to make it more seamless to listen to and purchase songs.

Apple is adding incentives to keep developers building apps. On Wednesday, the Cupertino company said it would increase the amount of money that app businesses make on its App Store if customers subscribe to an app for more than a year. Apple’s cut would drop from 30 percent to 15 percent — effective immediately for existing subscriptions, a welcome windfall for loyalist developers.

Tom Bowden, a managing partner with Mirai LLP, a Tokyo software developer, said his firm switched from charging a one-time fee for its language-learning apps to a subscription model in November 2013 because it was challenging to compete with free apps in the App Store. The change in revenue split will increase his firm’s revenue by about 10 percent, he estimates — money that will go into research and development and marketing, Bowden said.

“This is a great step in the right direction,” he said.

Apple is under pressure from analysts to continue to innovate. But for its news to really matter to developers, it will have to actually deliver code and tools they can use. Mohajer said he’s noticed a trend of big companies, including Google, that have announced major products without putting out specific details on exact launch dates.

“It seems like these big companies are feeling like they are behind and they need to catch up, but they need to make their announcement,” Mohajer said. “They are announcing the road map before executing the road map.”

Wendy Lee is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: wlee@sfchronicle.com Twitter: thewendylee